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Tough Questions Are Not for 'Official Networks'

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006 2:23 PM

Comcast SportsNet sportscaster Chick Hernandez was a 10-year-old fan of the Dallas Cowboys when he showed up one night in a Channel 9 studio decked out in full Cowboys regalia to sit in the audience for the old "Redskins Sidelines" show back in the late 1970s.

He still remembers Sidelines co-host Sonny Jurgensen playfully suggesting that someone throw the mini-Cowboy kid out the door and Redskins fans booing him as he sat in the bleachers on the set. But Hernandez was allowed to stay and watch that night and the Sidelines show was always on his must-viewing list, even if he did fancy the Cowboys as his favorite team so many years ago.

Hernandez, of course, went on to become a talented sports broadcaster himself, eventually returning to his hometown market to work for Channel 5 before taking over as one of the lead anchors handling nightly sportscasts for Comcast SportsNet. But always in the back of his mind was the idea of hosting his own Sidelines-like show on the regional cable network that also is now the team's "official broadcast partner." (More on that issue later.)

Three years ago, that dream came true when Comcast began airing "Monday Nite Live", which now emanates every week during the NFL season from the Champps restaurant near the Reston Town Center.

Hernandez hosts the lively hour-long show along with two current Redskins, Jon Jansen and Renaldo Wynn, and there are a few more bells and whistles -- including a live band every week and non-football guests like Gary Williams, Ted Leonsis and Alex Ovechkin -- than Sidelines ever had. Out in the production truck making it all flow seamlessly is another link to the old show -- long-time Channel 9 producer and director Ernie Bauer, an off-camera wizard who's been with Comcast for most of the last decade. He now directs "Monday Nite Live" every week, just as he directed Sidelines for so many years.

I stopped by Champps one evening a few weeks ago to take in the "MNL" scene, and clearly it's feel-good television, even if the team's 4-9 season has made so many Redskins fans feel so down and out this fall.

A year ago, according to "MNL" producer Leslie Reader, when the team was streaking into the playoffs, crowds were large and boisterous. The night I visited, there were plenty of empty tables and not much to cheer about, though quarterback Jason Campbell, fresh off his first start of the year the day before in Tampa, received an enthusiastic reception when he walked on to the set.

Hernandez said he likes the show's format if only because it helps personalize the players for the fans and allows him to be far less informal than when he's manning the Comcast anchor desk for the real news of the day.

Clearly, anyone watching live at the restaurant or at home knows there's not going to be much breaking news or any whiff of controversy coming out over the next sixty minutes. The emphasis is on entertainment -- one night Ovechkin even fired a few pucks at Hernandez -- and the more fluff the better.

The night I was there, cornerback Shawn Springs, an Ohio State alum, showed up with a Buckeye jersey that Jansen, a Michigan man, had promised to wear if Ohio State prevailed over the Wolverines the previous weekend. Stop the presses -- it can now be reported that Jansen honored his bet and wore the jersey for the duration of the show, even if it looked like a size medium on his 3XL torso.

It was all fun and games, just the way Redskins management and the suits at Comcast SportsNet seem to like it, even during one of the more disappointing seasons in recent team history. Then again, when you become the "official" network of any team, you also run the risk of occasionally pulling your punches rather than making too many waves that might jeopardize the relationship.

That's certainly the message Comcast SportsNet also put out when it suspended (with hardly anyone even taking notice) one of its postgame show broadcasters last month for asking a couple of tough questions of veteran quarterback Mark Brunell.

Steve Czaban, better known as an acerbic radio sports talk show host on WTEM -- definitely NOT the official radio station of the Redskins -- has been moonlighting on Comcast's Redskins postgame show for the last three years.

But he recently sat out a one-week suspension for asking a then-struggling Brunell earlier this season if he thought he was still going to be the team's starting quarterback in 2007.

He followed that up by asking Brunell another hypothetical. If the team was effectively eliminated from the playoff race, Czaban wondered, would Brunell go to Joe Gibbs and suggest to his head coach that he give Campbell a chance to play?

According to Czaban, Brunell was not happy. "He said to me 'I can't believe you could ask something like that," Czaban said in a recent interview. "Then he complained to (a Redskins public relations aide), and I think because Comcast has this relationship with the team, the Redskins leaned on them to do something. I offered to resign from the show multiple times, but I was told they didn't want me to do that.

"I was suspended for one week because (Comcast) determined that in my question to Brunell, in their words, I used the platform of the show to confuse and embarrass a guest. They didn't feel it was appropriate. I've asked a lot of people if they thought what I asked was inappropriate and I can't find anyone who does. When you have these kinds of relationships, there obviously are some trade-offs. I offered to step away because I didn't want to jeopardize Comcast's relationship with the team. I didn't want to be a liability. To their credit, they wanted me back on the show."

Sam Schroeder, general manager of Comcast SportsNet, said he would not comment on Czaban's suspension because the company does not publicly discuss personnel matters.

"The player did not complain to us; the Redskins did not complain to us," Schroeder said. "Our mission here is to report on all of our teams, including the Redskins, and to be fair, honest and respectful. Any time, if for any reason, we've missed that mark, we deal with that swiftly and internally."

Schroeder also insisted that his company's business relationship with the Redskins has never compromised its coverage of the team.

"It's the only way we'll have any integrity," he said. "We're not here to be maneuvered by the team... We guard our relationship with our audience and our teams very carefully. Straight-up and flat-out, I can't remember an incident where a team has complained to us about being unfair to them or that we've improperly covered the team, its players, coaches or owners."

Straight-up and flat-out, I personally can't recall a broadcaster who asked a tough but very legitimate question of an athlete ever getting suspended by his employer, "official network" or not. That "official" relationship may make sense in producing entertaining shows like "Monday Nite Live." But future suspensions or other disciplinary action taken against anyone asking athletes, coaches or team officials hard questions also could ultimately lead to an unwanted unofficial reputation as "Comcast SportsNet Lite."

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at  Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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